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Ian Foster grades the All Blacks' season

By Ned Lester
New Zealand Head Coach Ian Foster looks on during the pre match warm up. Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

The All Blacks‘ 2022 season may have ended on a sour note but Ian Foster is feeling confident the year has set his team up nicely for a competitive 2023 campaign, leading into September’s World Cup.

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The All Blacks have just a handful of Tests remaining before facing France in the opening match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup and this penultimate international season was the final opportunity for the two hemispheres to face off and see who’s holding the cards heading into the quadrennial tournament.

The Kiwi coach joined Martin Devlin on The Platform and answered a number of questions about his team, from captaincy concerns to mental resilience and grading the season overall.

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“I think if I had to give it a mark,” Foster said. “I think it’s a little bit simplistic in many ways but if you look at the first part of the year, the first five Tests/the first six Tests, (the) home series against Ireland who at that stage were the world number one coming to this country, we then had two away Tests at South Africa and (that) clearly was a tough start.

“I’d give us, probably when you look at that you’d probably give us a D wouldn’t you? We didn’t get the results we wanted even though there was lots of things happening around the country at that particular time.

“I think the second part of the season, the last seven Tests where we’ve effectively gone unbeaten and I think made some real good strides, changed a few people, found some pretty good combinations going forward, I’d probably give us a B plus.”

The season was capped by a 25-all draw with the team that knocked the All Blacks out of the 2019 World Cup, England.

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The game saw a dramatic comeback from England in the final nine minutes and some of the All Blacks’ decisions that would eventually contribute to that comeback have since faced heavy scrutiny, so too have the All Blacks leaders on the field at the time who were unable to inspire their side to stop the bleeding.

Devlin questioned how secure the leadership team within the squad was, specifically captain Sam Cane.

“Well we’ll work through that next year Marty,” Foster answered. “But he’s a great leader.

“Like everything, people have to demand their position on the park and Sam Cane wouldn’t want it any other way.

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“The same’s applied with Sam Whitelock, there’s some great competition at lock now so it’s one of those things that we’ve got a great leadership group, I think they’re working hard together and they know that the pressure’s on them to play well on the park and so the actual captaincy of the team is something that I guess we keep reassessing.

“The guys that we’re talking about Marty are still key leaders whether they’ve got a C next to their name or not.”

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Foster admitted the England Test exposed an inability to “nail teams when we’ve got the foot on the throat” and that mental toughness would be a focus moving forward.

“One of the reasons it was disappointing was because we really played so well for large parts of that Test.

“We did a whole lot of things that we’re pretty excited about, we played a team that had beat us up three years ago and I felt we went in and really imposed ourselves physically.

“What it did show us in that last part is, mentally we’ve still got a little bit of room to grow as a group about how to finish off games and where to go to when we’re under the pressure at that tail end of the game.

A thorough review heading into a World Cup year has inspired an All Blacks first, as Foster revealed: “We’re actually assembling the All Blacks squad at the end of January before they go into Super Rugby, just to review the year which is something that we haven’t done/been able to do before.”

The progress of the year from a results perspective is clear, but Foster identified some key areas that have contributed to those results.

“I really believe that if you look at the year we’ve had, you look at the last seven Tests and the different things that we’ve done in that period, to me that’s a strong launching pad into next year because we’ve grown immensely.

“I think some parts of our game, I think the physicality side, I think the game plan, our kicking game has got stronger, our mauling game and defending mauls which was a weakness at the start of the year has now become a strength and so there’s parts of our components, there’s parts of the game that I’m really enjoying the growth.”

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Foster and his selection team had faced criticism earlier in the year for showing a lack of willingness to experiment with the All Blacks’ lineup when results weren’t favourable, only to also face criticism later in the year for not providing the continuity of selection perhaps needed to build chemistry in new combinations.

The inconsistent criticism seemed to amuse Foster and he explained his plan for building robust experience within the squad ahead of the World Cup.

“We’ve had a strategy of trying to build, to make sure we’ve got a squad of 33 that we’re really confident with going into a World Cup. So do we believe we’re there yet? I think we do, we still want to be open-minded to what’s happening next year in Super Rugby, we’ve got some challenges to put to players about growth so that’s why we don’t want to go out categoric and say we’ve got our 15 but I think between myself and Jase and Joe, we’ve got a very, very clear idea about where we’re heading and are excited by that.”

In a year where he’s faced vigorous criticism from fans and had his capability as a coach questioned so harshly, Foster said his love for the game, passion for his role and regard for the people around him overrides any and all negativity.

All in all, the season’s peaks and troughs have taught the team a lot and Foster emphasised that those learnings were key.

“We know we’re not a finished product yet and so in many ways, it’s a pretty good spot to be in and gives us a good ability to actually create a really, real good edge with our group next year but it’s from a position of confidence – it’s not a position of wondering where the answers are.”

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